The Psychopath Test

I just finished reading The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson.  One of the rare non-fiction books that I read in one sitting, straight through without pauses.  Ronson's writing is really funny and while he tackles some very serious issues he handles them with a light touch. While the titular psychopath test features heavily in the book, Ronson doesn't endorse it.  Not exactly.  The test identifies a set of twenty traits that characterize psychopaths, and while Ronson doesn't doubt the test's accuracy, he's skeptical of its application.  When the test includes traits like "promiscuous sexual behavior" and "superficial charm" it's easy to see how mental health professionals could overdiagnose.

Ronson picks up on the idea that a lot of psychopaths end up in positions of power to demonstrate a couple of things.  One, psychopathy makes for good business - and maybe we should worry about that.  But, two, we can't just preemptively toss all the world's psychopaths in mental institutions, or keep them there without cause.

I like his emphasis on the grey areas.  At the same time, he doesn't view psychopathy through rose-colored glasses.  He isn't Grizzly Man, cuddling up to beasts that want to kill him.  The book includes some bone-chilling examples of what psychopaths are capable of, and the cautionary tale of a well-meaning group therapy program that made the psychopaths who participated more likely to commit crimes.

Now.  There's a lot of advice out there about how to create a good, compelling villain.  A lot of people think readers need to empathize with villains, understand their motivations, and that's not going to be possible with a psychopath, because psychopaths don't have feelings.  Hard to empathize with a character who has no feelings, right?  So writers should consult The Psychopath Test as a template for their villains with caution, but I can't help but think it's a powerful tool.

The September/October 2010 issue of Scientific American Mind also had a pretty interesting article about psychopaths ("Inside the Mind of a Psychopath").  It pointed out little details of behavior that I can't help but think would be fabulous for a villain - for example, "psychopaths have trouble understanding metaphors" and "make more errors when identifying abstract nouns - words such as 'love,' 'deceit,' 'trust,' 'dedication' and 'curiosity.'"

The thing that makes psychopaths so tricky is that they're often charming and likable - here's a longer quote from "Inside the Mind of a Psychopath":

One of [the authors] used to ask inexperienced graduate stuents to interview a particularly appealing inmate before acquainting themselves with his criminal history.  These budding psychologists would emerge quite certain that such a well-spoken, trustworthy person must have been wrongly imprisoned.  Until, that is, they read his file -- pimping, drug dealing, fraud, robbery, and on and on -- and went back to reinterview him, at which point he would say offhandedly, "Oh, yeah, I didn't want to tell you about all that stuff.  That's the old me."

So when working with a villain who's socially adept, seeding in these little cues could create the perfect sense of uncanny wrongness.

Anyhow.  I highly recommend The Psychopath Test.  If nothing else, it's a great read.